Myanmar situation an 'enormous, tragic step back', use of lethal force unacceptable: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the situation in Myanmar was a throwback to 1988. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - The military coup in Myanmar is an enormous, tragic step back for the country, and the use of lethal force against civilians and unarmed demonstrators is just not acceptable, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (March 2).

And if the Myanmar population decides the government is not on their side, then the government has a very big problem, he added in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Mr Lee also called for the military regime that seized power in February to release detained state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, to negotiate with her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and to work out a peaceful way forward for Myanmar.

The ongoing political turmoil has sparked nationwide protests with at least 21 killed and over a thousand arrested. Amid growing global condemnation, and with Asean foreign ministers meeting to discuss the situation in the country on Tuesday (March 2), Myanmar's military has asked security forces not to use live ammunition to disperse crowds.

In the interview with BBC's Asia business correspondent Karishma Vaswani on Tuesday, Mr Lee said the situation in Myanmar was a throwback to 1988, when a cocktail of bloody riots, military power and martial law became untenable for the country's leaders, who eventually announced a seven-step roadmap to democracy in 2003.

"We were all sceptical, but they were serious about it, and they did move in that direction systematically, and eventually held elections," said Mr Lee.

Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD have succeeded at the polls since but for the military to now take over again is regressive - and "there is no future that way", said Mr Lee.

"They knew that, that was why they moved forward into elections and a civilian government," he added.

Arresting Ms Suu Kyi and other leaders, and charging her with offences - including one under an obscure law over walkie-talkies - will not help solve the problem, said Mr Lee.

Asked why Singapore had not yet imposed sanctions, he said: "Outsiders have very little influence on this. You can ostracise them, condemn them, and pass resolutions or not, but it really has very little influence on what Myanmar will do.

"It had zero influence the last time round, and the only impact was, for the lack of anybody (else) willing to talk to them, they fell back on those people who were willing to talk to them, which was China, and to some extent, India."

Added Mr Lee: "It was an uncomfortable position for them, but it did not cause them to decide that they must do what the Americans, Europeans, or even the Asean countries would have preferred them to do."

He said Singapore had to express disapproval for a situation that goes against the values of many other countries, and a large part of humanity for that matter.

But it had to also be realistic and consider what taking action would lead to.

The ongoing political turmoil in Myanmar has sparked nationwide protests with at least 21 killed and over a thousand arrested. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"Now, the demonstrators are saying military intervention in Myanmar? Is the 82nd Airborne going to arrive?" asked Mr Lee, referring to an elite US army division known for parachuting in to respond to global crisis contingencies.

He also said it was not a matter of economic considerations or benefiting from trade with Myanmar.

"The volume of trade is very small for us and for many other countries," Mr Lee noted. "Question is, what can make a difference to them, and if you do impose sanctions, who will hurt? It will not be the military, or the generals who will hurt. It will be the Myanmar population who will hurt. It will deprive them of food, medicine, essentials and opportunities for education. How does that make things better?"

Asked how he saw the situation playing out, Mr Lee said he hoped that wisdom would prevail as it did after 1988, with the armed forces concluding that the military route does not lead anywhere, and that they would have to work out an arrangement with the civilian government, which has been democratically elected.

"I think sense can still eventually prevail. It may take quite a long time, but it can happen. It has happened before," said Mr Lee.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.